Candy Crush in Atlantic City?

New Jersey tries to lure young people hooked on digital video games of skill to wager on those games. Other states should ignore this desperate pursuit to tap games of merit as a way to revive an industry built on notions of chance.

AP Photo
People play slots at the casino at Revel Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, N.J., last month, just before it closed.

A dream audience for global marketers these days is the billion-plus people, usually under age 30, who play digital games such as Candy Crush, Madden, or Farmville. Advertisers are first in line to tap this gaming demographic. Even social activist groups, such as the nonprofit Games for Change, are riding this wave. And then there is New Jersey.

On Tuesday, the state put out a welcome sign for developers of digital games to partner with any of Atlantic City’s casinos. Desperate to keep gambling money flowing to its coffers, New Jersey wants to lure young gamers into wagering on their pastime, either in person or online within the state’s borders. Why? The biggest threat to the American gambling industry is the prospect that young people will prefer to stick with playing free video games over commercial gambling. 

Nevada is also moving toward “gamblifying” these interactive games, which are now played on home consoles, computers, tablets, and smart phones. If the two states can carve out a new market based on this passion of young people, then other states may follow -- just as they did with casinos in recent decades.

But here’s the wild card. Most players of digital games see them as games of skill, not chance. Players compete on merit, not on a loose notion of luck that drives gamblers, even poker players. Candy Crush is not a one-armed bandit. If Atlantic City could thrive on games of skill, it would have built a thousand pinball parlors.

Fortunately, one of the leaders of digital games, Zynga, has decided that it does not want to join forces with the gambling industry in the United States. Instead, it is sticking with developing and updating games, including Words With Friends. The maker of Candy Crush Saga, King Digital Entertainment, has followed suit.

The US gambling industry is eager to burst open a national market for online gambling, despite evidence of its addictive nature compared with land-based gambling such as state lotteries. Exploiting American kids hooked on their Xbox or PlayStation is not the way to go. And for sure, elected government leaders should not act as an industry promoter of this dubious pursuit. If Atlantic City casinos are at an end, then it’s game over.

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